Silvanus: the forest god

The Roman god Silvanus may not be the best-known, but he was popular with the people. He had no official cult or priests dedicated to his worship – his was a cult of country people, farmers, labourers and slaves.

A bas-relief of Silvanus. Wikimedia.

He had more inscriptions and other forms of dedications than the Oriental gods (isis, Mithra) and among the traditional Roman deities, only Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Hercules, Fortuna and Mercury were more popular. (Dorcey: 1)

His attributes are his falx or pruning knife, pine branch or wreath, and dog. (You can see how his cult merged with the Celtic cult of the god Sucellus, another god with working tools and a dog by his side.

Forests and Flocks

Silvanus protected both the forests (silva) which gave him his name, and the fields. Like Janus and Terminus, he was a god who lived on the boundaries. As a god of woodlands, he kept their dangers at bay, and allowed the flocks and crops to flourish.

He overlapped with Mars, who was also a protector of fields and crops, unlike the Greek Ares, who only revelled in battle and carnage:

Perform the vow for the health of the cattle as follows: Make an offering to Mars Silvanus in the forest during the daytime for each head of cattle: 3 pounds of meal, 4½ pounds of bacon, 4½ pounds of meat, and 3 pints of wine. You may place the viands in one vessel, and the wine likewise in one vessel. Either a slave or a free man may make this offering. After the ceremony is over, consume the offering on the spot at once. A woman may not take part in this offering or see how it is performed. You may vow the vow every year if you wish.
(Cato De Agricultura 83)

Offerings to Silvanus varied: grapes, pigs, ears of grain, milk, wine, and meat. Vergil’s Aeneid tells how the Pelagasians dedicated a grove to Silvanus, and celebrated a festival each year:

By Caere’s cold flood lies an ample grove
revered from age to age. The hollowing hills
enclasp it in wide circles of dark fir,
and the Pelasgians, so the legends tell,
primaeval settlers of the Latin plains,
called it the haunt of Silvan, kindly god
of flocks and fields, and honoring the grove
gave it a festal day.
(Vergil’s Aeneid 8.600)

While Silvanus may have been a god of unreclaimed woodland in the beginning, he expanded to become a god of all rural life: forest, hunting, farming, herding, agriculture in general and the home. (Dorcey: 25) But Romans still thought of him as primarily a god of groves, as Livy’s History shows:

After the battle had gone in this way, so great a panic seized Tarquin and the Etruscans that the two armies of Veii and Tarquinii, on the approach of night, despairing of success, left the field and departed for their homes. The story of the battle was enriched by marvels. In the silence of the next night a great voice is said to have come from the forest of Arsia, believed to be the voice of Silvanus, which spoke thus: “The fallen of the Tusci are one more than those of their foe; the Roman is conqueror.” (Livy History of Rome 2.7.2)

Silvanus was not much like Pan, the other wild god of the forest, however. He was usually shown as an old man (in one myth, the goddess Pomona refused him because he was too old), and even when he is accompanied by the silvae, a group of feminine powers, you don’t get the impression of a Dionysian revel.

Head of Silvanus. By Carole Raddato, Wikimedia.

Titles

Some of Silvanus’ titles, going by the altars and other dedications to him, are a bit unexpected. Some, like domesticus, silvestris, and deus would seem pretty straightforward, but others like augsutus and sanctus are a bit more unexpected. Domesticus comes from Pannonia and Dacia, where things were less civilized and the home needed defending. (Of course, in the Danubian provinces danger didn’t necessarily come from wild animals.)

The silvestris titles also come form the Danubian area, probably for the same reason. (Dorcey points out that in Gaul and Germania, although both areas were heavily forested, the Romans seem to have been less threatened by them, and so Silvanus doesn’t take that title there.)

Of the other three, sanctus (holy) was used in Rome, deus (god) in Gaul, Germany and Britain, and augustus (venerable/revered) in Dalmatia. All three point to Silvanus’ status – we can see that he was not seen as a minor forest spirit, but an important god. (Dorcey: 28) Another group of titles, such as holy, pure, eternal and heavenly back that up (and suggest a transcendent element we might not have expected.)

Dendrophorus, or tree-bearer, however, referred to a common image of Silvanus carrying a tree or branch of a tree, usually his beloved cypress or pine.

Unlucky in Love

The cypress may be a reminder of his lost love, a story told by Vergil in the Georgics. He fell in love with a beautiful youth called Cyparissus but it ended badly when Silvanus killed Cyparissus’ pet doe, and the youth turned into a cypress tree out of sorrow. (I wanted so badly to say pined away; I wonder if that works as a pun in Latin.) There’s a similar story about Apollo, who went in for beautiful youths too.

I mentioned above that Silvanus’ other love was Pomona, who rejected him for being too old. She claimed at the time that she was determined to remain single, but the seasonal god Vertumnus managed to trick his way into her affections. (Although for once he didn’t rape her, preferring to talk her around. Ovid spoils it, though, by remarking at the end: “He was ready to force her: but no force was needed, and the nymph captivated by the form of the god, felt a mutual passion.”. You get the impression the author was disappointed.)

Perhaps because of his age, or his experiences, Silvanus seems to have left love to the younger deities. It didn’t affect his popularity, though. In my next post I’ll be looking at numerous foreign gods who were seen as similar to him, including many Celtic ones.


References and Links

Dorcey, Peter F. 1992: The Cult of Silvanus: a Study in Roman Folk Religion, Brill. (Google Books)

The Wikipedia Entry
Britannica Entry
To the God Sucellus Silvanus
Deep in the Forest: Silvanus and Faunus
Roman Myths About Silvanus
Metamorphoses Book 14

5 thoughts on “Silvanus: the forest god

  1. Pingback: Celtic Silvanus | We Are Star Stuff

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